Dec 092014
 

In Part One of this series I discussed why the Tableau support community is unique and why you should care. In Part Two I shared my thoughts on the early years of the community and how one person in particular set the tone for sharing knowledge and expertise.  In this final post I make recommendations on the things you can do to ensure that the community continues to thrive.

What you can, and should do, to ensure the community thrives

I rely on this community to inspire me, cheer me on, and help me when I need it.

I don’t want to lose this invaluable asset, so I’m going to enlist you to contribute to its wellbeing, assuming you are not already doing so. Here are some things you can do.

Ask for help

If you can’t find what you need through a web search, ask for help as it will help the community as a whole. While counterintuitive, asking for help will generate a discussion that will lead to solutions that will help not just you but others that are having or will have the same problem you have.

And just where should you ask for help?  Tableau’s community forum is a great place to start.  If you look you will see a lot of Zen Masters who have posted questions, not just answers, through the years.

In addition to asking, if you want to observe noteworthy Tableau activity, make sure to check out the Twitter hashtag #tableau and also check out the list of Tableau-related tweeters Andy Cotgreave has assembled here.

Show the love

If someone has helped you or something has inspired you, send them a “thank you” e-mail, launch a tweet, comment that person’s blog, but above all please let the person who helped you know you appreciate what he / she has done (and in my case feel free to send dark chocolate and / or red wine).

Cheer1

Cheer2

Cheer3

Figure 1 -- Beers were free at The 2014 Tableau Conference.  But I appreciate the sentiment.

Figure 1 — Beers were free at The 2014 Tableau Conference. But I appreciate the sentiment.

Cheering each other on is a big reason the community thrives.

Post your work to Tableau Public.

If you create something worthwhile, share it with the world.  Tableau Public makes it easy, and it’s free.

If you recall from Part One, I stated that Tableau Public is a masterstroke in fostering community and visualization excellence in that it provides a free service for people to post their work.  The public will in turn remark on the work, but the really amazing thing is that a Tableau user can download packaged workbooks to see how they work.

Consider this great “how-to” example from Josh Milligan.

Figure 2 -- A great "how to" example from Josh Milligan that anybody can download and dissect.

Figure 2 — A great “how to” example from Josh Milligan that anybody can download and dissect.

Notice the “Download” button in the bottom right corner.  With Tableau Public I can do more than just interact with the viz; I can download the workbook and see how the person built it.

Help others whenever and wherever you can.

You may not be able to pay back the person or people that helped you, but you can help others.  Do not feel pressure to change the world or have the same impact as a Joe Mako or a Jonathan Drummey, but there’s a lot you can do including participating on the Tableau forum, writing a blog, attending a user group meeting (live or virtual), helping a non-profit understand their data, or just commenting on someone else’s work.

With respect to the forum, try “lurking” (just hanging out and observing the various conversations) to see if this might be an outlet for your abilities. If nothing else you’ll learn a great deal.

With respect to blogging, the barrier to entry has never been lower and this is a great way to find your voice and contribute to the community.  Indeed, Andy Cotgreave maintains that if you can have a Google account you can create a blog and publish a post in fewer than three minutes.

Figure 3 --  Dan Montgomery, Paul Banoub, and Anya A'Hearn, and Lewell Loree stopping traffic and evangelizing blogging at the 2014 Tableau Conference.

Figure 3 — Dan Montgomery, Paul Banoub, Anya A’Hearn, and Jewel Loree stopping traffic and evangelizing blogging at the 2014 Tableau Conference.

Do not celebrate or reward mediocre work.

We should, as a community, be working to improve the art and should not reward stuff that isn’t good.  I’m not saying that you should be a jerk (remember, there are no jerks in this community, at least not yet) but if you see something that you know can be better, please let the person – and the world – know what you would do to make it better.

I’ve written about this on several occasions (please see My Problems with a Company’s Iron Viz Competition and Ask These Three Questions.)

Incidentally, people critique my work all the time and I’m grateful for the feedback.  Indeed, if I have any “high-stakes” dashboards I want to publish I will always ask both colleagues and laypeople to review the work before it goes live (please see the “Usability” section of Your Tableau Public Viz is Ugly *and* Confusing.)

Don’t be too hard on yourself

I remember something Joe Mako told me several years ago:

I like Tableau because it allows me to fail faster.

Do not be afraid to fail, and to fail easily and often. It takes time, study, and practice to get good at data visualization and Tableau.  Do not be afraid to post something on Tableau Public and ask for help or criticism.  Most people will offer constructive help and you’ll get better, fast.

I look forward to seeing your work, reading your tweets, and pondering your questions.

 

Dec 012014
 

In this continuation from Part One I share my thoughts on the early years of the community and how one person in particular set the tone for sharing knowledge and expertise.  

How did this start?

There were a lot of really great people contributing to the community in Tableau’s early years.  I’ve already mentioned Jonathan Drummey and Richard Leeke.  Others I recall include Alex Kerin, Andy Cotgreave, James Baker, and Russell Christopher.

But there’s one person in particular that I think set the tone and established the precedent for discovering and sharing Tableau knowledge.

Meet Joe Mako

At the 2011 customer conference in Las Vegas, Tableau singled out Joe Mako for responding to an unfathomable number of Tableau forum posts that directly helped hundreds and indirectly helped thousands of people.

And what prompted Tableau to do this? This is a great example of the community raising its voice and recognizing contributions of one of its own.  Several people, including Matt Shoemaker, Richard Leeke, Dan Murray, Mel Stephenson, Tim Costello, and Tom Brown, petitioned Tableau, urging the company to recognize Joe for his incredible contributions.

This citing by Tableau led to the creation of the Tableau Zen Master program.

For the first two years of the program Tableau used the following Venn diagram to show the confluence of skills and temperament that comprise a Zen Master:

Figure 7 -- Generic Zen Master Venn Diagram

Figure 7 — Generic Zen Master Venn Diagram

Here’s what I think would be the appropriate diagram for Joe:

Figure 8 -- Joe Mako Zen Master diagram

Figure 8 — Joe Mako Zen Master diagram

Anyone who has been on a screen sharing call with Joe (and there are probably hundreds of people who have availed themselves of Joe’s generosity) can attest to stunning, fully-fleshed solutions emerging from Joe’s brain.

I’ve spent enough time with Joe to realize it isn’t just Robin Williams-like brilliance but Bruce Lee-type discipline Joe has applied to really understanding Tableau.

Joe is also remarkably kind and reassuring, offering a soothing, Mr. Rogers-like “don’t worry, we’ll figure this out together” encouragement whenever I’ve been stuck and needed help.

The only downside of a screen sharing session with Joe is that you get off the phone and think that “jeez, this guy is smarter than I am, more disciplined than I am, and … he’s nicer than I am” (and I’m a very nice guy.)

We are very lucky to have him in our community.

How did these seeds produce so much fruit?

How did the contributions of Joe and a handful of others lead to such a large, rich community?

I can’t speak for others, but my contributing stemmed from a desire to repay those people (especially Joe) that had given me so much help.

The problem was that I could not pay these people back directly as there was not much I had to offer them, save appreciation and gratitude.*

But I could give back to the community as a whole.  In my case I don’t attempt to answer forum posts in near real time.  This skill is best left to folks like Shawn Wallwork, Mathew Lutton, Grayson Deal, Joe Oppelt, Noah Salvaterra, Joshua Milligan, KK Molugu, and many others that do an amazing job.  I give back through pro bono work and blog posts.  Specifically, in addition to helping out non-profit organizations I try to publish a useful “here’s how you do this” blog post at least once a month.  The posts can take hours to write, but that’s a small price to pay for what the community gives me in return (and I will confess that they do generate interest in my work).

If you are like me you rely on this community to help and inspire you.  I, for one, love having the safety net of knowing that there are literally dozens of great minds that I can tap for help and inspiration.

I’ve already told you what I do to contribute to the community.  In Part Three of this series I’ll provide ideas on what others can to ensure the community thrives.

* Note: Expressing appreciation and gratitude are essential to the community.  I’ll discuss this more in Part Three of this series.

Nov 242014
 

This is the first in a series of three blog posts that explores why what makes Tableau’s support community so special, why you should care, and what you can do to ensure that the community thrives.

My sincere thanks go to Andy Cotgreave and Jonathan Drummey who reviewed an early draft and provided invaluable feedback.  Their actions exemplify what this community is about.

72467,47

Anybody recognize that form of user ID?  It’s my CompuServe ID, circa 1985.

compuserve-672x600_cropped

Figure 1 — Getting help from a support forum looked like in the Australopithecus era of personal computing.

I bring this up because over the past 30 years I’ve been involved with dozens of different software communities and I’ve never seen anything that matches the quality, creativity, generosity, and, well, love, that surrounds Tableau.

And just what makes me say that, and why should you care?

Let me start with the second question first.

Why you should care

When people ask me why I like Tableau and why I recommend the product I tell them the following:

  • Tableau more often than not allows “mere mortals” to discover what is important in their data, create compelling visualizations, and share these visualizations with others. By “mere mortals” I mean people not steeped in data science or graphic design.
  • If, however, you are not able to figure out what to do there is a community of people at your beck and call that will help you. The community will NOT allow you to fail.
  • This same community will inspire you to do better work.

Examples of the community at work and what makes it unique

Forum Posts

I was at a client earlier this year and we had our collective heads-down trying to find a visualization that would really make the underlying data sing.

The client asked about displaying pie marks on a scatterplot. Although I was almost certain that this would not yield useful insights (my polite way of saying it would look really dumb), I figured we might as well give it a try as it’s so easy to just try stuff with Tableau and see if it yields good results.

Well, it’s usually really easy to just try stuff.

In this instance I was spinning my wheels for a bit so I invoked what I call the Tableau ten-minute rule:

If, after ten minutes of working in Tableau you come to the conclusion that you are not making any progress, see if anybody else has already solved the problem.

So, I typed the following into Google:

“scatterplot with pie marks Tableau”

My first hit was this:

http://community.tableausoftware.com/message/225437

01_DrummeyHelp

Figure 2 — A snippet for an amazingly cogent response, typical of Jonathan Drummey and so many others who share their expertise freely on the Tableau support forum.

Holy Venn Diagram, Batman!  Not only was this exactly what I needed, but the post contained a wonderfully-written discourse on how Tableau works.  Who takes the time to write stuff like this?

Ah, of course.  Jonathan Drummey:  Tableau Zen Master, Tableau forum contributor extraordinaire, and author of Drawing with Numbers, one of the “must read” data visualization and Tableau blogs.

This experience reminded me of many times that I’ve been flummoxed and I’ve sought help on the forum  One “career-critical” incident occurred just as I was starting out as an independent consultant and I was in a quandary.  I managed to find my post and the attendant response from Richard Leeke (another generous-with-his-time-and-expertise Zen Master) at http://community.tableausoftware.com/thread/111283.

01a_Leeke

Figure 3 — Richard Leeke, saving my hide at a critical juncture in my career.

I can still remember my relief when I tried Richard’s solution and it worked.  Perfectly.

Blogs

While the forum posts make the community so helpful, it’s the blog posts that make it so rich.  There are scores of people sharing their solutions and creativity and their influence on me has been profound.

I’ll cite one example.

In mid-2013 I decided to check out the “viz of the day” and see if there was anything good.  I’ll confess that I can be an insufferable snob when it comes to dashboard design and my previous visits to this site had left me unimpressed.

But then I saw this http://www.tableausoftware.com/public/gallery/socialworld

BestCommunity_Kelly1

Figure 4 — An example of Kelly Martin’s work

F&*k!  While I wasn’t paying attention a bunch of people really raised the bar on Tableau dashboard design.  Now aware that I was not quite as bad-ass as I thought, I decided to find out who built this particular dashboard and discovered Kelly Martin of VizCandy.

There is so much great work here, and so many useful blog posts.  This combination of quality and quantity is indicative of dozens of the Tableau bloggers that contribute to the community by creating something either useful or beautiful (or both), posting for the world to see using Tableau Public, and then explaining how they did it.

(I won’t attempt to list all of the great blogs and attendant posts, but in early 2014 Andy Cotgreave assembled a list of influential Tableau-related blog posts.)

Tableau Public

Tableau Public is a masterstroke in fostering community and visualization excellence in that it provides a free service for people to post their work.  The public will in turn remark on the work (both praise and brickbats), but the really amazing thing is that a Tableau user can download packaged workbooks to see how they work.

Consider this great example from Mark Jackson.

MarkJackson

Figure 5 — A great example of Tableau’s Story Points feature from Mark Jackson.

Notice the “Download” button in the bottom right corner.  With Tableau Public I can do more than just interact with the viz; I can download the workbook and see how the person built it.

I can cite dozens of times where somebody posts something cool that somebody else downloads, dissects, improves, and then re-posts, only to inspire somebody else to repeat the process.

I’ve been part of this “cycle-of-improvement” on several occasions and have downloaded hundreds of workbooks to see for myself how a fellow Tableau author built something wonderful.  I’ve gotten much better at what I do because of this free exchange.

Note: I encourage you to read Andy Cotgreave’s post about why a chart should start, not end, a conversation.  In this article you will find a great example of how three Tableau users found different and important truths in the same data set.

Tableau Employees

When I first started working on this essay in the spring something had gone horribly wrong with the forum: when I conducted a search through Google – or even on the forum itself – I could not find any forum posts.

This was not a good thing; my entire thesis of “if you can’t figure it out yourself, conduct a search on Google” was not going to withstand any scrutiny if none of the forum posts would show up in the search.

I won’t get into the details of what happened but it was an unintended consequence of making a change to the way the underlying support system (Jive Software) had been implemented.

I was irate over what had happened but as much as it was bothering me, it was bothering the folks tasked with making the forums work even more.  These are Tableau employees that care deeply about nurturing the community and I suspect they weren’t sleeping well while this was going on. It took a while, but they fixed it, so major kudos to Tracy Fitzgerald, Dustin Smith, Ross Perez, Patrick Van Der Hyde for their efforts in remedying the problem and in nurturing the online community.

Note: There’s so much more I should write about Tableau employees but I’ve decided to mention just those employees of which I am aware whose work focuses mostly on nurturing the support community.

No Jerks

I mentioned at the beginning of this essay that I’ve been involved with a lot of software communities and they have had more than their fair share of dysfunctional, bordering on toxic, personalities.

Figure 6 –For whatever reason, there don’t seem to be any jerks (at least of which I’m aware) in the Tableau community.

Figure 6 –For whatever reason, there don’t seem to be any jerks (at least of which I’m aware) in the Tableau community.

I have yet to meet any jerks, either in person or online, within the Tableau community.  They may exist, but so far I’ve only met people that were smart, eager to learn, eager to share, and remarkably well adjusted.

I have some ideas on why the community is as functional as it is, and it had a lot to do with the temperament of some of the earliest contributors (and one contributor in particular).

I will share my thoughts in Part Two of this series.